Archive for September 21st, 2011

September 21, 2011

On garlic

And, most dear actors, eat no onions nor garlic, for we are to utter sweet breath; and do not doubt but to hear them say it is a sweet comedy. - William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while will remember my “Practically Marzipan” column – it ran in the New Indian Express’ Zeitgeist from 2008 to the beginning of this year.
One of the (many) columns I never reposted to the blog was written in 2008 and it was about garlic. And various other things (like sex), but mostly garlic. A conversation on twitter today led me to seek it out.
(This is an unedited version – the published version appears to have disappeared from their website)

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The consumption of onions and garlic (and others among the delicious consolations that make human life worth living) was just one of the many things a large number of my ancestors seem to have been against.

In India, a number of religious groups disapprove of onions and garlic. These are supposed to be Rajasic foods, clouding the mind with passion and making it harder to concentrate on spiritual matters. A related explanation I’ve seen used in various quarters is that these foods enhance the libido. I find this baffling – surely onion-y, garlicky breath is a turn off? – but supposing it to be true, the hostility is understandable. Few people would meditate when there were enhanced libidos to be taken care of.

The writers of scripture (and more recently, well known dieticians) express themselves even more strongly on the subjects of meat and alcohol. Had America been discovered at the time when these scriptures were written, doubtless potatoes and chocolate would have been found to be objectionable too.

Of course, this idea that you are what you eat is not limited to the subcontinent alone. In 1800s America, similar beliefs led to two major culinary revolutions. An early campaigner for diet reform was one Sylvester Graham. Like all great reformers, Graham seems to have taken an active interest in the private lives of his fellow men; particularly their sex lives. Being of the belief that any form of excitement was unhealthy and that animal-based products created lust, Graham advocated vegetarianism, sexual abstinence (he believed that masturbation led to blindness and insanity) and (his one good idea) frequent bathing. He also invented the Graham cracker, the most boring biscuit in existence and thus a stalwart foot soldier in the war against sexual gratification.

But as influential as Graham crackers were to become, Sylvester Graham was only preparing the way for a greater man who would one day overshadow him. That man was John Harvey Kellogg.

Like Graham, Kellogg was a fan of vegetarianism and abstinence, and against exciting food and sex. He even wrote a book, titled Plain Facts About Sexual Life (the title was later changed to Plain Facts for Old and Young) to support his views. He and his wife occupied separate bedrooms for the forty years of their marriage. Clearly he practiced what he preached.

What Kellogg is really known for is the invention of the cornflake along with his brother W.K (Will Keith) Kellogg. The cornflake at the time was a healthy, whole grain product that was unlikely to encourage any unwanted desires. In later years the humble cornflake would take on new and startling forms and a number of exotic flavours, but the Kellogg brothers actually argued in 1906 over the necessity of adding sugar to the basic recipe – presumably John thought it would be too exciting for the consumers. A century later, there’s certainly sugar in most breakfast cereals, so it seems that W.K had the right idea.

Religious scripture remains silent on the subject of cornflakes, while continuing to shake its head disapprovingly at onions and garlic. So for now I think my breakfast, however sugared, is safe.

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Srividya Natarajan’s 2006 novel No Onions Nor Garlic plays with the Shakespeare quote above – it’s a satire about TamBrahms staging a more Hindu Midsummer Night’s Dream in Madras. It is excellent.
Also I’d like to think my ability to write 500 word columns has improved over the last few years.